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9
Chapter Nine

The next morning Hethlin woke at dawn with a start, as was her wont at times. There was a wrenching, disorienting moment of the sort she hated-I am not bound, there are no orcs, I’m with the Rangers-before she woke fully and peered about her. The alcove was totally dark, save for a bar of pale grey light that was the doorway with the curtain nearly drawn shut. She listened for a moment, hearing the soft, regular breathing of her room-mates, and assuming he was still asleep, got up as silently as possible. But no sooner did she move than she heard his voice, speaking in little more than a whisper.

“Hethlin?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Would you be so kind as to ask my brother to come in here when you go out? I think he will be up, and if he is not, please ask his lieutenant to wake him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you.” She started to nod, realized belatedly how useless that was in near-total darkness and made her way carefully to the door and out into the main chamber.

Boromir had moved out into the main chamber when she had returned to the refuge and he was just waking up, sitting up and rubbing his face, his blankets fallen low about his waist. He was shirtless. She couldn’t tell if he was wearing anything or not beneath the blankets, and found herself blushing.

“Captain-General, sir? The Captain is asking for you.”

“Is he now, lad?” Boromir said, and seeing her discomfiture, grinned raffishly. “Tell him I’ll be in presently.” Hethlin, not wanting to discover if the Captain-General was in truth unclothed, hastened back to do as she’d been told.

“’Tis good he’s going home. Did you see the way he blushed? That lad still has mother’s milk around his mouth,” she heard Gethrin say to his captain as she departed.

That lad killed three orcs the other night,” came Boromir’s casual response. “You keep your mouth off of him, lieutenant.” Hethlin’s cheeks heated again, but not from embarrassment this time.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Boromir ate his breakfast at Faramir’s desk, while he watched Mablung tend his brother’s wound. Faramir hissed as the bandages were carefully peeled away, but he sat stoically enough while the lieutenant examined the injury, then salved it and bandaged it once more.

“It looks good, sir. No infection that I can see, and it’s starting to heal nicely, from the inside out, just as it should.”

“Thank you, Mablung,” Faramir said. The lieutenant helped him to carefully put his shirt back on.

“You’re still going to need to take it easy for a while, sir. Probably at least another week. I’ll be seeing if the stitches are ready to take out in five days. Until they come out, you’re not fit for duty, and maybe not for a while afterwards. And I’ll sit on you myself if you try to go out on patrol before you’re ready.”

Faramir’s eyebrow arched upward. “You are impertinent, lieutenant,” he said without any real heat. Mablung, unfazed, merely stared meaningfully back at his superior. Boromir chuckled.

“No, he is a jewel among subordinates! Lieutenant, I order you to use any means necessary to make sure that my brother does not resume duties before you deem him physically able to do so. There, Faramir, it’s official-he’s not being impertinent, he‘s under orders.” Faramir glowered at his brother for a moment, then, seeing Boromir grin unrepentantly, he sighed and shook his head.

“If you are done totally undermining my authority with my men, will you not at least take some of them with you when you return, Boromir? I was dismayed that you’d brought no more than two dozen of your own with you on the way here, and you‘ve sent half of them back already. Given the level of activity we’ve been seeing lately, it would be best if you went back with one of my patrols as an escort.”

The Captain-General shook his head. “I know how much ground you have to cover, and how few men you have to do it. We’ll be close to the river, in daylight. Esteven and his fellows got up here safely enough and saw nothing on their way. I think we’ll be all right.”

“I feel strongly about this, Boromir.”

“Had one of your dreams, did you?”

“No. I just think you should be careful.”

“I will be all right, little brother.”

Faramir, recognizing the tone of voice his brother used when his mind was set upon something, gave up any further argument as futile.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

After breakfast, the time for farewells came at last. Hethlin, compelled to act as lad rather than lass, clasped Mablung’s forearm instead of hugging him as she might have wished. But when to her surprise the lieutenant embraced her, she did not resist, but allowed herself to be pressed against his shoulder.

“Thank you, sir, for everything,” she said softly against his ear.

“You are very welcome, Hethlin,” he said, his voice more gruff than usual. “You be well now, do you hear? Stay out of trouble.” She nodded, he gave her a squeeze and released her, and she had to blink rapidly a couple of times as she stepped back.

“I still think you should go work for the Prince,” Lorend said, stepping forward in his turn. Knowing better than to go for an embrace, he held out his arm, and Hethlin clasped it with a grin.

“Go work for him yourself, if you like the idea so much!”

“Ah, but what would the Rangers do without me?”

A chorus of suggestions promptly arose in answer to his rhetorical question, Lorend glaring over his shoulder at the speakers while Hethlin laughed.

“Take care of yourself, Hethlin,” he said, turning his attention back to her for a moment before stepping back, and she nodded. Then, somewhat more hesitantly, she turned towards where Faramir stood, and walked over to him.

“Thank you, Captain sir,” she said softly, extending her arm a bit tentatively, but he grasped it readily enough, though his grave grey eyes searched hers.

“You are welcome, Hethlin. Are you sure you are set upon this course? My offer still stands.”

“Aye sir, I am. I want to go home.”

“Then go you safe home, and may the Valar guard and guide you.”

“And you too, sir.” She hesitated for a moment, as if contemplating doing or saying something more, then gave him a rather tremulous smile and stepped back. Faramir smiled back, that rare, beautiful smile that lit his face up. Hethlin sucked in a deep breath, then turned to where Mablung was waiting, a blindfold in his hand. Other Rangers clustered close to offer their own farewells.

“Be well, little brother, and don’t rush back into battle too soon,” Boromir said, watching while Hethlin finished her good-byes and she and the Swan Knights had their eyes bound. He draped his arm about Faramir’s more slender shoulders and gave a gentle squeeze. Faramir frowned a little, the crease that said he was worried forming between his eyes.

“I still think you should take some of my men with you, brother. Mablung can lead a patrol out.”

“And I’ve already told you my decision upon that. Don’t worry, Faramir, we’ll be fine. And I promise that the next time Father writes to me complaining of some shortcoming of yours, I’ll come up and look into it personally. In fact, I may just start doing that every time he writes me so. Then perhaps he will stop complaining.”

“’Tis more likely Sauron will offer unconditional surrender first,” snorted Faramir, but amusement had replaced the worry on his face-as Boromir had intended. After cheerful good-byes to those of Faramir’s senior officers with whom he had some acquaintance, the Captain-General took Hethlin’s elbow and led her out of the refuge personally.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Hethlin kept her ears and other senses sharp as they moved down the trail. As a child, her father had blindfolded her on more than one occasion to teach her the importance of using all her senses in the woods. She was very conscious of the creak of leather and jingle of mail, the sound of underbrush being crushed under heavy feet (hardly feather-footed, were the soldiers and Swan Knights!), the murmured conversations and breathing of the soldiers, and the morning birdsong. She kept a running count of her strides, to see if she could calculate the distance they’d traveled. After a time, when they’d gone about two miles by her estimation, the party changed direction. She could tell because she began to feel the intermittent sensation of the morning sun upon her left cheek, when it found its way through the leaf canopy. They were headed due south. After another couple of miles a halt was called, and the blindfolds removed.

Esteven scrubbed at his face in relief, and Boromir gave him an apologetic clap on the shoulder.

“Sorry, Esteven.”

The Swan Knight smiled graciously. “You need not apologize, my lord. We understand the necessity for secrecy. I am glad I was able to see your brother’s stronghold. A fascinating place! And glad as well, that there was no real need for my services. The Prince will be very relieved to know Lord Faramir is recovering.” He gestured at the trail before him. “Shall we go on?”

Boromir nodded with equal courtesy. “Indeed we shall.” The party set forth again. They marched for another hour, and the Captain-General was just discussing with Lord Esteven the timing of their lunch break, when Hethlin began to get the feeling that something was wrong. There was a prickling in the short hairs on the back of her neck that she knew she should pay heed to, so she stopped suddenly in her tracks, nearly causing the soldier in back of her (for she was right behind the Swan Knight and Boromir), to walk up on her heels. He muttered something under his breath that might have been a curse and there was the odd swear word here and there as the whole party came to an untidy halt.

“Hethlin?” the Captain-General, seeming surprised rather than angry when he noticed his escort had halted, “What’s amiss?”

“There’s something wrong, sir,” she said softly. “Could I have a moment to listen, please?” He inclined his head in acquiescence and stood silently as she had asked, gesturing to his men to be silent as well.

Hethlin stretched her senses, listening as carefully as she could, sniffing the breeze, looking about her carefully. The sense of wrongness persisted, and a moment later she realized what it was.

“There are no birds, sir,” she murmured at last. “They were singing earlier, but they’ve stopped.”

“Because of us?”

She shook her head, definite. “We wouldn’t make them go silent like that.”

The Captain-General raised an eyebrow. “What would?”

“Father always said that good things flee or go hidden where the Enemy is abroad.”

“Orcs?”

“I think so. They could be moving, or laired up against the day somewhere close by. I could go ahead a way and look. I really probably should, sir. Otherwise, we might stumble right over them.”

“And what should we be doing while you are scouting for these possible orcs?” Boromir asked genially. Hethlin suddenly remembered that she was speaking to the supreme commander of Gondor’s army, and went pink, but held her ground.

“Just get off the trail and wait here quietly till I get back, sir. You should keep a sharp eye out as well. I’ll try to be quick about it.”

“Captain-General, sir,” said Gethrin, “you’re not taking the boy seriously, are you?” Some muttered commentary behind him indicated that the rest of Boromir’s escort was of a similar doubting disposition. The Steward’s Heir seemed blissfully oblivious to their displeasure.

“Faramir always says in the woods, best trust a Ranger. This boy is as close as we’ve got at present.” Boromir shot a look at the commander of the Swan Knights. “Esteven?”

The Swan Knight shrugged. “I’m out of my element here, my lord. I’ll defer to the expert.” Boromir turned back to Hethlin.

“I’d as soon you were careful as quick, lad. You don’t want to stumble over them yourself.”

Hethlin blinked. “Shall I go then, sir?”

Boromir nodded. “Indeed. We’ll wait here till you return and report. And here, take this.” He gestured to Gethrin. “The spy-glass, Gethrin.” His aide handed him a slender brass tube, which he held up to Hethlin‘s eye. “See how it works? Twist it here to make things sharper.” She exclaimed in wonder.

“It’s like having eagle eyes!”

The Captain-General chuckled. “I suppose it is. It’s also worth more than a full suit of armor, so be careful with it!” Wide-eyed, Hethlin accepted the leather carrying tube from Gethrin, unbuckled her belt and slid it on.

“I’ll be careful, sir. Thank you, sir.” She made one of her nervous head bobs, slipped her pack and quiver down off her shoulders, laid the pack down, put the quiver back on, adjusted everything to her satisfaction, and with another head bob, slipped off into the woods. She moved very silently, Boromir noted. The wood seemed quiet indeed when she departed.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

The sun climbed higher in the sky. To pass the time, lunch was eaten while they waited. While he ate, Boromir pondered what had seemed to him merely a logical command decision at the time, and now in retrospect looked more like insanity. I just sent a girl who has been captured and tortured once already by orcs, out alone to spy on a patrol of them! I know that she passed that Ranger test of Faramir’s but still…what is wrong with me? When Faramir finds out, he’ll have a fit! And the Valar only know what Uncle would do! Or Andra, for that matter! Strangely enough, his father’s disapproval didn’t factor into his musings particularly, and the Captain-General suspected that was because his use of whichever person had the skills he needed for Gondor’s benefit, regardless of the cost to them personally, fell right into line with Denethor’s own philosophy.

What is it about the lass, that she breeds chaos wherever she goes? Faramir, normally the most deliberate and clear-minded of men, had apparently had his reason totally overset during Hethlin’s stay among his Rangers-it was the most charitable explanation for his rather feeble effort to deceive his brother. And Boromir could not say that he had fared much better, suffering as he had from cryptic dreams about the wench and from an oddly urgent impulse to aid in her escape from the somewhat straitened future Faramir had proposed for her.

Perhaps it is simply that we are kindred spirits, he mused. Stifled as he felt from time to time by the requirements of his position as Heir and the weight of his father’s expectations, he could not help but empathize with Hethlin’s desire to live free. But that did not explain his actions this afternoon. That was something else entirely.

He was a soldier and a commander of men, and he believed, a reasonably good judge of young soldiers and their potential. And it was very disconcerting to find himself repeatedly reacting to Hethlin not as a man would to a woman (not that he was much of a man for women in any event), but as a commander would to a young but promising recruit. Indeed, it was all too easy to forget she was a woman at all, and treat her like any green young lad sent to him for training. It was an almost instinctive reaction, but he knew it to be a wrong one, and that he must strive to overcome it.

Though ‘tis a shame, for she has courage and wits enough, I deem, to have eventually become a commander-had she only been a lad! But he had overheard a little of her speech with Faramir the night before, and spoke to himself sternly now. She belongs in Anorien, with her mountains and her flowers and her hawks. And if the Valar grant that she gets back here in one piece, you are going to see that she makes her way safe home!

Unbidden, unwelcome, a memory of the dream in all its confusing imagery returned to him then, as well as that idea that had no basis in logic, but was nonetheless adamant in its conviction:

She needs to stay with your brother.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

An hour passed. Hidden behind the shrubbery and well shaded from the heat of the day, Gethrin and the others in his escort were nonetheless beginning to mutter, but the Swan Knights seemed content to simply wait upon events.

Then suddenly, as if she were a ghost materializing to pass some message on to the living, Hethlin silently reappeared. Gethrin started and bit back a muffled exclamation. The Dol Amroth contingent and several of the other men were startled as well.

The girl made one of her little head-bobs. “My lord.”

“Did you find anything, lad?”

“Aye, my lord.” She gestured to the west and south, the way the trail took down to the river. “There’s a ravine down there, a good sized one. They’re down there.”

“How many?”

“I’m not sure. From the size of the ravine, and where their sentries are placed, I don‘t think it could be more than a hundred. There could be a lot less of them, though. It all depends on how tightly they’re packed in there.” Hethlin hesitated for a moment, then continued. “I thought, my lord…that you might want to take a look. We could go higher, up on the ridge up there, and I could show you. Then you might be better prepared to decide what you’d like to do. And we’d be upwind as well, at least for now.”

“And a little further out of their way?”

“That too, sir.” Hethlin ducked her head a little, evading his gaze. Boromir offered her a chunk of bread and dried meat.

“Here. We had lunch while we were waiting for you. Can you eat while we’re moving?”

Hethlin shook her head in refusal. “I’ll wait till we rest, sir.”

“Lead the way then, lad.”

“We should go as quiet as we can, my lord,” she added hesitantly. Boromir grinned.

“Meaning us lead-footed sorts need to try a bit harder, heh?”

“Yes, sir. And no talking either, sir. I could hear you a way down the trail as I came back.”

“I’ll bear that in mind.” He turned to the others. “You heard the lad. Quiet now.”

Her cheeks burning, she did as he had ordered, moving to the head of the party and taking them off of the trail to start up a nearby slope. The day was warming swiftly and there was little wind. A buzz of insects surrounded them and the uphill climb soon robbed the heavily armored men of the wind for much else but panting softly, even had they not been under an order of silence. It took about twenty minutes for them to reach the vantage point, a forested ridge. There was brush enough under the trees to conceal them, and Boromir looked at the girl in approval.

“Have you been this way before, lad?” he asked in a low voice.

“No, my lord. I saw this place when I was trying to cut around the ravine. I thought it might be a good place to watch them from.” She took out the spy-glass, trained it down the slope and fiddled with the focus for a moment, then handed it to him and pointed. “Do you see that lightning struck tree, sir? Look a little to the right of it and down. One of the sentries is under there.” She took out her water bottle and had a drink while he searched.

“I can’t find it…no, wait! There he is! I just saw him move!” The Captain-General passed the spy-glass to Gethrin and then to Esteven, showing each in turn where the sentry was.

“Very well then, where are the others, Hethlin?” The girl put away her water-bottle and took the glass once more. After some searching, where she put the glass to her eye and took it down several times, she seemed to zero in upon something. After watching it for a moment, she handed the glass to the Captain-General.

“That rock outcropping across the valley, sir. Use it as an aiming point, and then go straight down. There’s one about half-way up the other side of the ravine, close to another clump of boulders. But you’ll have to watch a bit to be sure. He’s quieter than the other one.”

Boromir did as directed. This search took longer than the other one had, but eventually, the others heard him mutter “Is that a shadow, or an orc…? No, there we go, he moved. Gethrin, Esteven, come here. This one’s harder to find.” And Boromir did the best he could not to move the spyglass, but to hold it in place for the others. It took a while, but eventually the other two officers were convinced of that sentry’s existence as well.

“So they’re all spread out in between?” came the Swan Knight’s comment after they had all had a look.

Hethlin nodded. “Aye, my lord. I think they’re the sentries at either end of the camp. I can show you the ones in between as well, if you like.”

“No, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Esteven said a little absently, regarding the ravine, his eyes narrowed against the blaze of the afternoon sun. “You’ve shown us the bounds of the camp, and that’s what we needed. There could be a great many of them down there then.” She nodded again.

“Perhaps. Or there could be fewer and they’re just spread out a bit,” said Gethrin, playing devil‘s advocate. “They like to fight with each other almost as much as they like to fight with us. If they’re from different detachments, their officers might be keeping them apart to keep the bloodshed down.”

“That’s true as well, though I would think you wouldn’t want to get too spread out in enemy territory,” the Captain-General said. “Hethlin, how many are usually in a scouting party?” She looked at him slightly askance. The carefully casual tone in which he’d asked the question made her wonder if it were not a test of some sort. After all, there was probably little she could tell Lord Boromir about fighting orcs!

“Sometimes just one or two, sir, like the one Lieutenant Mablung and I ran into. But they can have up to six in a scouting party. I didn’t hear of anything larger than that while I was with the Rangers.”

“And a patrol?”

“Usually about two dozen to thirty, but it goes up from there.”

“How many archers in the patrol?”

“At least a third, sometimes half. I don’t know if that holds for the ones you see down around Osgiliath, but they know we have good archers, so they arm themselves to match us.”

“’Us?’” His eyes were twinkling.

“Sorry, sir. I meant the Rangers, sir.”

“So-you said earlier there could be up to a hundred down there. Is that your final number?”

She eyed the ravine for a long moment before replying, but when she did there was no hesitation, Boromir noted with approval. “Aye, my lord. I do hold with what I said earlier. The patrols the Rangers have been encountering of late have all been a pretty good size-you’ll know that yourself, from talking to Captain Faramir. This one’s a triple-size patrol, judging from the size of the ravine. Seventy to one hundred orcs.”

“Hmmph. And me with my dozen and one archer and four doughty Swan Knights. I‘m not sure I like those odds. I should have listened to my brother and let him send some of his men as an escort, as he wished to do, for it’s Rangers that are needed here.” Boromir looked at the ravine, then up at the sun. “They’ll start moving come dusk-we’ve not that much time.” He turned back to the others. “We’ll wait here, and keep an eye on them. Hethlin?”

“My lord?”

“I am sorry about your lunch but I need you to find your way back to Henneth-Annûn, and get me some Rangers. Can you do that?”

“Aye, my lord. And never you mind about the lunch-I’ll do better running on an empty stomach anyway.”

“But how are you going to find your way back, lad?” Esteven interjected curiously. “You were blindfolded, weren’t you?”

“Aye, sir. But I can follow our trail back, now I’m not. It should be clear enough.”

“Because we tromp through the woods like Mûmak, Esteven,” Boromir said with a grin, “And we talk too much as well.” He watched, amused, as the girl turned crimson yet again. “I promise we’ll be quiet as we wait, Hethlin. Off with you now, and if my brother gives you any trouble tell him you are acting upon my orders.”

She gave one of her nervous head-bobs by way of answer, and slid her pack off once more, taking up only the water bottle, and slinging it across her chest. Her bow she took into her hand. Preparations finished, she looked up at the Captain-General a bit shyly, but her voice, when she spoke, though soft, was firm enough.

“Sir, it may be that I will come across a patrol on my way. Shall I send them on to you, and go on to Lord Faramir anyway, or come back with them? How many men do you want?”

Boromir smiled his approval at her quick thinking. “Yes, if you find a patrol, send them on. I’d like to have two dozen Rangers at the least, more if they can be spared. And even if you do find them, I want you to go on back to my brother. He needs to know what is going on. You needn’t worry about coming back with the men, lad-just give them directions on where to meet up with us. I don’t want you in this battle. We’ll find another way to get you home if we must.”

Hethlin nodded, expressionless. “Very well, sir, I’ll try to get some men back here as soon as I can.” She looked down at the ravine. “What will you do if they move, sir?”

“Try to trail them unseen at a distance,” Boromir told her, and refrained with some difficulty from laughing out loud at the doubtful look she gave him and his men.

“I’d best hurry, then,” she said, and vanished into the brush once more, apparently oblivious to the fact that she’d just insulted Gondor’s premier warrior. Or perhaps not…There is more to that one than meets the eye! Boromir thought, chuckling softly, and settled himself down under one of the larger trees to wait, after setting a lookout to watch the orc camp. The girl had chosen well-despite the heat of the day, there was sufficient shade, and an occasional faint breeze helped to cool them despite their armor. With an old campaigner’s instincts, Boromir found his eyes closing, and did not fight the urge. There should be more than enough time for a nice nap before the Rangers came.

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